Be sure to check out the finale of Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors for free on this site on Halloween! If you’d like to support that and my other work, go to www.CushingHorrors.com! Don’t forget to read the Scribe Award-Winning MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE – In print, for kindle, and for all e-book formats. And check out my retro-horror-comedy classic CANOE COPS VS. THE MUMMY and my other books, as well. (Links to other free Frost Harrow tales at the end of the story.)
A Jimson Edison Frost Harrow™ Story
I swam upon the Devil’s lake
But never, never, never, never
I’ll never make the same mistake
No, never, never, never
— Cat Stevens “The Wind”
“I swear to God, that’s exactly what happened!”
I stare skeptically across the top of my beer at the guy who’s accosted me with this crazy story. He gazes expectantly at me, like he wants me to ask him out on a date, though maybe he’s just looking for some kind of acknowledgement.
I shrug, noncommittally. “So…?”
“So, ain’t you gonna write it down or something?”
Oh. Now I get it. He’s recognized my homely mug from the photo at the end of a magazine article or something. Thus, the north-woods fairy tale—though the center of Wisconsin isn’t exactly the north woods. It’s almost like some Up North nuttiness has followed me south from Frosthaven—or maybe this is just an early “Welcome Home” gift as I trundle back to the shores of Lake Superior from Chicago.
“Fishing accidents aren’t usually my beat,” I tell the guy.
He leans toward me on his bar stool, and for a moment, I’m afraid he’s actually going to join me at my table, which I’d deliberately picked to keep away from the yokels. (Didn’t work.)
“I’m tellin’ ya, this weren’t no accident,” the guy insists. “The boat was dragged down by somethin’ livin’ in the lake.” He’s dressed in full blaze-orange camos, as if he’s just wandered in from a deer hunt (though the season’s probably at least a month away). He doesn’t have a rifle slung over his shoulder, but I’m not entirely sure he isn’t packing; so I decide to play along.
“And when did this happen?” I ask.
“A month ago. You remember the night that squall blew through? That’s when.”
He must see the skepticism in my eyes, so he adds: “But the weather didn’t have nothing to do with it. The beer didn’t, either. I’d only just opened my second. It was some kind of thing, I’m tellin’ you—a monster or somethin’.”
“Right,” I reply, trying not to egg him on.
“The local Indians have a lot of stories about monsters living in the lake,” the bartender adds, picking this moment to stick her nose into the conversation I’m desperately trying to get out of. “The Native Americans, I mean. Lots of stuff in old newspapers, too.” She hooks her thumb to some “historical” clippings in a display case at one end of the bar, along with a badger pelt and a crude rendering of the Hodag, another Wisconsin myth.
I suppress a sigh and say: “So, I’m supposed to…?”
“You’re a reporter, ain’t you?” the putative deer hunter says. “Check it out.”
I’m not a reporter, exactly, but I let that pass. “Got that boat for me to look at?”
He shakes his head. “Told ya, it sunk. I was lucky to swim to shore and escape alive.”
“Any other evidence? Eyewitnesses? Photos? Tracks in the sand? Police reports…?”
“It was night and dark as sin,” he replies. “But I told the cops.”
He glares belligerently and takes a drink of his pint. “Cops’re assholes.”
“I’ve noticed that myself.”
“But I’m tellin’ the truth. Swear to God. You should check it out.”
I knock back the rest of my beer and stand. “I think I will,” I lie. “Thanks for the tip.”
“You might want to wait ’til tomorrow,” the deer hunter cautions. “It’ll be dark, soon.”
“‘S’okay. I’ve got a flashlight.”
“Good place to walk your dog,” the barkeep offers. Apparently, she spotted King in my VW Beetle when I drove up. “Don’t be walkin’ him around my bar. Patrons have enough trouble getting shitfaced without getting shit on their shoes, too.” She smiles at her own jest.
I spare her a chuckle.
“Park’s just a couple of miles down the road,” she adds. “South shore’s great for pets. Lots of hiking, too.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I say, paying my tab and heading out the door.
“You be careful out there, Mr. Reporter,” the deer hunter calls after me. “It’ll be dark soon!”
I really have no intention of checking out his stupid story, but two things conspire against me:
One is that King, my big German Shepherd mix, really does need a bathroom break; it’s a long drive from here to the top of Wisconsin.
And the second is that, in the Chicago conference that I’m driving home from, my editor just happened to mention that it’d been a long time since I’d sent him a story worth printing. He not-so-subtly implied that said creative drought could be bad for my continued employment.
Which is why, around sundown, I find myself with dog leash in hand, hiking toward the shore of a secluded but scenic body of water near the Wisconsin Dells.
Devil’s Lake doesn’t look very demonic to me; picturesque is more like it. It’s surrounded by forest and nestled in a natural bowl amid hills and high, rocky bluffs. The terrain makes the local area perfect for camping, hiking, or climbing, which I gather from the brochure that I got at the park entrance is what a lot of folks do here, especially during the summer season.
Today’s a shit day for any of that, though. It’s chilly, even for mid-October, and the north wind’s getting downright hostile, kicking the surface of the water into a froth of whitecaps. Plus, the sky is clotted with thick gray clouds, and it’s getting dark.
“C’mon, boy,” I urge the dog, trying to steer him toward the lake so I can get a better look at the scenery.
Sure, the lake monster thing is pure horseshit, but with a short glance around and a bit of research, I can probably get an editor-pleasing article out of it—“The Myth and Mystery of Devil’s Lake Wisconsin” or some such—even if I have to invent a chunk of that myth and mystery. Taking in the scenery will definitely add verisimilitude to my lies.
But King is more interested in the woods than the lakeshore, and being as he practically outweighs me, I’m forced to either follow along or let go his leash—and if I did that, heaven only knows if I’ll ever see him again (Call of the Wild, and all that).
The wind gets worse as my shepherd shepherds me through the forest. Autumn leaves are dancing in the air like dervish brown fairies, and my fingers are rapidly growing numb from the chill.
“Just find a place to go and go, goddammit!” I warn the dog.
Happily, he does, ’cause just then, the wind gets really bad—howling and swirling around like an angry banshee. A smattering of snowflakes begins dancing with the tarantella leaves, too.
Through the trees, and the building darkness, I catch something moving out on the water, and I can hardly believe my eyes.
At first, it looks like a whirlpool forming out near the center of the lake. As I watch, though, the swirling waters rise up, and I realize what’s really happening.
“Fuck me! Waterspout!”
I yank on King’s leash. “C’mon!’ I say, shouting to be heard above the howling wind. “Business time is over. We gotta get out of here!” ’Cause a spout on the water is a tornado on land, and no fucking way I wanna get caught in that!
I pull on the leash with all my strength, heading back toward the parking lot, and the couple of outbuildings there that might provide some shelter.
Unfortunately, King has other ideas.
He’s barking his fool head off, now, and decides he wants to go in the opposite direction that common sense and self-preservation would dictate: in other words, right toward the nearby shore that deadly waterspout is angling for.
“Stupid dog!” I cry. “Not that way!” I keep hauling the way I want to go.
But, since I’m pretty close to the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling, and since—as I mentioned—King nearly outweighs me, I lose that particular tug-of-war.
Next thing I know, I’m off my feet and being dragged on my ass through the brush toward our impending doom.
“King, stop!” I shout, but either he doesn’t hear me over the wind or he’s ignoring me. “Stupid… fucking… dog!”
But I’m not stupid, so when he keeps running, I let go the leash.
King takes off, like a dog on a mission, into the windswept woods and the escalating storm. The waterspout is so close now that I feel like tendrils of water are trying to snake their way into my lungs.
I scramble to my feet and run in the opposite direction.
I mean, I love my dog, but not enough to follow him on a kamikaze run into the heart of a burgeoning tornado.
The storm-winds buffet me as I go.
I sprawl headlong once, tripping over something I didn’t see in the gathering darkness, and for a moment it feels like I’m being dragged back toward the whirlwind.
I scramble for my life in the opposite direction—cursing all the while—and soon manage to get back to my feet and resume running.
I stay upright after that, despite being battered by sharp-edged leaves and stinging snow and sticks and broken branches that try to trip me up again.
For a few seconds, I hear King’s barks over the howl of the storm. Then his stupidly brave voice is lost in the howling madness ripping into the woods along the eastern shore of Devil’s Lake.
I keep going just as fast as my skinny legs will carry me.
When I reach the edge of the woods, I glance back.
I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m hoping to see some sign of King. More likely, I want to check if the waterspout-slash-tornado is gaining on me.
Instead, it towers above the forest, snaking black tendrils of debris whipping around as if it’s trying to battle—or perhaps climb—the towering rocky bluffs on the eastern shore.
The vortex seems like a living thing, gathering the darkness around itself, drawing power from nature run amok, trying to escape the confines of Devil’s Lake.
For a moment, I even imagine that I see shapes within the storm—writhing, snakelike limbs, wicked flashing eyes, hungry gaping mouths…
And then the whole world seems to explode.
A hurricane-force wind smashes me to the ground and knocks the breath out of my slender one-hundred-and-ten-pound frame.
The next thing I know, I’m lying on my back in the grass at the edge of the parking lot, staring at the heavens.
The wind is gone. The howling has stopped, and even the clouds overhead have begun to clear, the dark shadows moving away, revealing the indigo sky and the first stars of early evening.
“Fuck… me…” I mutter, sitting up, my head pounding and most of my body aching.
No trace of the whirlwind remains save scatterings of debris everywhere and a chop on the lake that still hasn’t entirely died away.
That reminds me of King. Did he get himself killed in the storm? Is he dead?
“Here boy!” I shout with as much breath as I can muster. “Here, King! C’mon, boy!”
Honestly, I don’t hold out much hope. Running off like that was a damned fool thing for him to do—a fatal mistake, most likely.
I liked that dog. He’s been my best friend since I rescued him from that shelter down in Arkansas.
I make a few more futile calls and then head back to the Beetle with a heavy heart.
My right leg is aching like a son-of-a-bitch, so I take a moment to sit on the hood of the VW and pull up my pants cuff.
“Musta hurt it when I tripped,” I tell myself.
Nothing’s broken though, and the ankle’s not even swollen. But… damndest thing… my skin from ankle to knee is covered with mottled reddish rings about the size of a quarter.
I rub the leg to try and get some feeling back into it, and the marks quickly disappear, thank God.
Not sure what they were, and don’t particularly care to think about it.
I’m just about to get behind the wheel of the VW when out of the forest trots my dog.
“King!” I cry, absurdly glad to see his furry face once more. “C’mere, boy!”
The shepherd makes his way to where I’m sitting, taking his time, as if nothing at all unusual has happened lately and there’s no reason in the world to hurry.
That’s when I notice that he’s got something in his mouth… gnawing on it… a gnarled stick, or…?
Just before he reaches me, King takes a final chew of the rubbery black tentacle and then slurps it down.
It was dark. Maybe I was mistaken.
That’s what I keep trying to tell myself, too.
But I swear to God, that’s exactly what happened.